The perfectly-attired CHNY member Dolly Rosen chats with speaker Emily Arendt before the presentation.
Against the backdrop of the viciously partisan election season, one that tantalizingly, if unsuccessfully, promised the shattering of ‘that last glass ceiling’ by Hillary Clinton, Professor Emily Arendt, a recipient of a 2015 CHNY Scholar’s Grant, brought to life the culinary partisanship of an era when women could neither vote nor stand for office, but could nonetheless make their voices heard through the products of the kitchen. The colonial-era Mount Vernon Hotel Museum made an ideal venue for Arendt, who drew a vivid picture of the differing symbolism of food in campaigns past.
Arendt started with the ‘other’ tea party of 1774, in Edenton, North Carolina, where genteel ladies (rather than the burly men of Boston’s harbor event) gathered at a house, purportedly to drink tea, but instead opted for a brew of raspberry leaves, signing a petition subsequently published (to little avail) in London, expressing their opposition to the heavy taxes imposed by the British. Arendt proposed the several different ways in which food became of symbol, first of English oppression, then of a new national identity, and finally, of partisan politics—a tour of culinary semiotics in nineteenth century America, largely enacted by disenfranchised women.
Arendt credited Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery (1796) with helping to forge a national identity out of the previously independent colonies, documenting a “culinary republicanism” with recipes such as Election Cake, a large, yeasted sweet bread baked to celebrate election days. Although dating back to the seventeenth century (see Stephen Schmidt’s article on the Hartford Election Cake), including Election Cake in her recipe collection put an American imprimatur on the English dish and contributed to the nascent concept of a ‘united’ states.
But food as a form of nation-building gave way to food as a partisan expression in the 1832 battle between Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay through competing recipes for jumbles, what we would consider a sugar cookie variant. Recipes for jumbles date back to sixteenth century England, where they were redolent of spices and rosewater, and sweetened with expensive sugar; they were a treat for the gentry and above. Recipes named for these politicians appear in both printed cookbooks and household manuscripts, the latter often, as Arendt observed, the more reliable indicia of culinary practice. Clay Jumbles follow the English model; they became tagged with an aura of elitism. By contrast, Jackson Jumbles omit the spices and aromatics and include the very humble buttermilk as a main ingredient: these were jumbles of and for the people. By the 1830s, spices were affordable and commonplace ingredients for most folks, so that the housewife who carefully copied this recipe into her notebook, whether in an urban or rural setting, was likely expressing her political preferences.
Culinary partisanship continued in the 1840 challenge by the Whig candidate William Henry Harrison to Democratic incumbent Martin Van Buren. Van Buren set an elegant French table at the White House and was roundly critiqued by Whig politicians; when Democrats tried to tar Harrison as uncouth, with a fondness for cider, the tactic backfired. Harrison embraced the cider as an emblem of the ‘everyman,’ and Harrison Cakes, made with cider, became the rage with recipes in the popular press. Newspaper editors could not resist comment, labeling the cakes either ‘delicious’ or ‘unpalatable,’ according to their political leanings. Without directly disclosing her nineteenth century political preferences, Arendt admitted that she found the heavy Harrison Cakes ‘unpalatable.’
By the late nineteenth century, the focus of political food had shifted from persons to issues. The Women’s Suffrage Cook Book includes a recipe for Suffrage Angel Cake, although it cautiously also included one for Washington Cake, as if to swathe the women’s movement in the approval of the Founding Fathers. Food continues to be a political symbol: Michelle Obama’s White House vegetable garden is a synecdoche for healthy eating, and yet, in the weeks leading up to the election, there was concern that the next inhabitant of the White House might uproot the garden.